Dear Tom and Ray:
I am an environmentalist who somehow went and had three kids -- one 6-year-old and a pair of 2-year-old twins. My husband wants us to get a van or -- heaven forbid! -- a sport utility vehicle, but I am trying very hard to hold out until a hybrid version is available OR the government changes its fuel-economy standards so that these larger vehicles will have to do significantly better than 19 miles per gallon. Meanwhile, our Volvo station wagon is pretty much bursting at the seams. Can you suggest ANY environmentally friendly options for my family and me? My husband says he will welcome your opinion! -- Kathryn
TOM: That's a tough one, Kathryn. With three little kids, all their stuff and a bursting Volvo, you certainly qualify for a bigger vehicle.
RAY: Or you have to convince one kid to run away and join the circus.
TOM: I would definitely not get an SUV, because it offers no advantages over a minivan (except, perhaps, styling), and lots of disadvantages. Those disadvantages include fuel economy, ease of entry and exit, ride, handling, safety and the rotten tomatoes being thrown at you by members of the Sierra Club.
RAY: But even minivans, these days, are getting larger and more powerful, thanks to the industry's (and, to be fair, I suppose, its customers') obsession with power over fuel economy. The leading minivans all get in the neighborhood of 18-20 mpg in the city, and 24-27 mpg on the highway. That's certainly better than the big SUVs, but it's not as good as it could be, given the technological advances of the past 20 years.
TOM: And hybrid minivans are certainly coming at some point. But they're not here yet.
RAY: So, given that all the major minivans offer similar gas mileage, we'd steer you toward the ones that handle best, ride best and have the best reputation for reliability. Those would be the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna. We'd actually give the edge to the Honda, since it feels more maneuverable to us (even though the two vans are almost the exact same size).
TOM: And the Honda now comes with "cylinder deactivation" technology. With that technology, the Odyssey uses all six cylinders when accelerating, but shuts off three of the cylinders when you're just cruising and don't need so much power.
RAY: That feature boosts the Odyssey's fuel economy to 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, which puts it at the high end of the minivan spectrum. That should be enough to allow you to keep your tree-hugger card for another few years. Good luck, Kathryn.